After last summer’s debut in Triathlon, taking in sprint and Olympic distance and becoming well and truly hooked on the sport, I decided that this year I would step up to 70.3 distance. So not only was this my first race of the season, it was my first ever at this distance and I chose a great location to compete – St Polten, Austria.
Travelling with 5 other guys including ProVo2’s Bruno Morelli, we arrived in Austria on Friday afternoon for the race on Sunday and went straight to the race venue in order to have a quick look round and beat the registration rush. It was immediately clear that this was not just a step up in distance but in style and atmosphere too. The Iron Village was already busy with athletes, and there was plenty to see and spend money on. Without any lines to wait in, registration was easy and it was a nice surprise to be given a Zoot rucksack as an athlete gift.
After a bit of a sleepless night at a very decent hotel and, we were up early to get back to the race site and get the bikes a quick tune and later attend the race briefing in English which was really helpful and is not something you would want to miss. We also had a walk around the swim course and transition areas by which time excitement levels were steadily rising. With more athletes on site and lots of bikes appearing too, it was a really buzzing environment to be part of. Bikes were checked in, and run and bike bags left in T1 and T2.
The course in St Polten is pretty amazing. The first striking feature is that the swim is not a continuous 1900m. The first 900m is on one lake, before athletes exit and run 200m to a different lake to complete the last kilometre. The bike leg is the highlight though – with roads closed to traffic for 90km, and the first 18km being on closed motorway, it’s a real treat. Although mostly flat, there are two big climbs, some really fast descents and a few technical moments so overall it has a bit of everything, including some stunning scenery and views of the Danube.
Race day arrived and we were on site at 6am to make final checks on the bike. The vibe at this point was brilliant – 3000 athletes all completely focused on their race. Some amazing bikes in T1 and last minute tinkering and prep happening all around.
I was in wave 5 (35-40) with a 7.55 start. Getting to the swim start took a while due to access being by a narrow bridge which was split down the middle - lots of athletes and supporters heading one way with the Pro’s and early waves racing between the two lakes going the other. I managed to catch the pro’s at this point, and seeing Chris McCormack et al in action was a great inspiration.
I was on my own at this point as the rest of the guys were in different waves but I prefer a bit of alone time with the ipod anyway, and The Stone Roses seemed to be ticking the boxes. I was doing a light jog when another ProVo2 ‘er (Nathan) spotted my team top and stopped me to say hello which was nice and we wished each other luck before I got into my wetsuit and into the water about 10 mins before start. With over 500 people in my wave it was crowded but electric and before I knew it we were off.
I was expecting a real washing machine but it wasn’t too bad and I managed to get a bit of rhythm before the first turn. Things were congested now, and with the 2nd turn about 50m later, it stayed that way until the first long portion of open water and I felt like I was going OK and crucially seemed to have my pacing right. Coming out of the water for the 200m run to swim part 2 was straight forward and not too crowded. I wondered if the run might leave me puggled for the next swim but actually it gave the arms a little rest and I felt the 2nd part of the swim went better than the first. Swim time (including the run 35:21)
A short run to T1, bike bag collected from my peg and into the tent to get the wetsuit off and into the empty bag. I had put my helmet in my bike bag too, so that was already on as I got to my bike before running about 100m with it to the exit. With lots of people around it was a bit congested, but I was less then impressed when the guy in front of me stopped dead before he got out of T1. I managed to avoid smashing into the back of him but evasive action meant I lost control of my bike and as I kept running I stumbled over it and ended up in a pile on the ground. I immediately panicked that the bike might be damaged but it luckily it was OK. I did loose most of the energy drink from my profile bottle though, and picked up a grazed elbow – overall, this might have cost me 30 seconds or so but I was soon on the saddle and starting the bike leg.
T1 time: 3:53
After a km or so through a residential area, we were on the open motorway which was incredible. I can’t imagine ever having closed roads like this in the UK and I quickly settled into the aero position and was klanging along quite comfortably, moving past lots of riders. My Specialized Transition expert, fitted with FFWD 240’s was really in it’s element, and the money I had spent on a thorough bike fit was well spent. Before I knew it we were off the motor way and onto ‘a’ roads and a slightly rolling terrain before the first climb which took us through several small hamlets. The local people were brilliant – out on the street cheering us all along with ‘hop, hop, hop”, ringing cowbells and adding to the atmosphere. With the first feed station at the top if the climb I grabbed a bottle of infinite drink and a water refill for my profile bottle before the fast and triacky decent. There were a few tight corners and at the first left hand 90 degree turn I saw at least one person on the ground, bike in the barrier. This made me extra glad I’d had a gears and brakes tune up. More winding and flat terrain took us along the banks of the Danube and I was steadily passing riders from my own wave as well those from the waves ahead of me. At about 55km I was passed by 2 leaders from the wave after me who were really moving and looked very strong although they were definitely drafting each other, against the rules. At about 60km the 2nd big climb started – 8km long and gaining about 330m. And right at that time the clouds opened for about 10 minutes of heavy rain. For some reason, this made me laugh and I was fairly happy grinding away and embracing the pain. About half way up I passed a rider who was working on a tubular puncture. I asked if he was OK and in broken English he said he had lost his gas nozzle. I figured it would be good triathlon karma to help him so I stopped for about a 90 seconds to assist. Another feed station at the top of that climb, followed soon after by ‘70km’ sprayed on the road gave me a boost, as did the long fast decent back to St Polten. The last 20km passed quickly, but now with a slight cross wind and a cheeky Italian who was drafting me.
Bike time: 2:34:53
Bike racked at T2 I grabbed my run bag, trainers and visor on, helmet and glasses into the empty bag and away on the run, which I wasn’t really looking forward to as it is my weakest area.
The venue had both a tennis arena and 400m athletics track and these were incorporated into the run. The arena was great – steep seating stands around 3 sides were filled with supporters so the noise and colour was impressive. Run feed stations provided water, coke, banana, energy gels and sponges and were every 3km so a grabbed coke, rounded the area for the first time before a lap of the 400m track, then another lap of the arena before heading out along the banks of the river for the first of 2 big laps. The legs felt surprisingly good at this point (thanks to the bike fit I think) and the first 10km went by in about 45 mins. The next 6 were tough and the last 5 horrible. Getting to the halfway stage was great, and meant I was on the home leg, the cheers from the arena proving a real encouragement. At about 17km things suddenly slowed down and got tougher but by this time I would hear the speaker announcements at the finish line and just nutted down to get on with it. At 1km to go the legs really felt heavy and the last lap of the athletics track seemed a lot longer than 400m. But as I rounded the corner, the marshal guided me into the finishers lane and as I took the last few steps up the ramp and over the line, the pain of the last half hour vanished and I was handed my medal and foil blanket. Looking back now I am disappointed with the run time and felt about 4 or 5km short.
Run time: 1:41:36
Overall time: 4:57:59
Getting in under 5hrs feels like a decent effort for my first 70.3, and the aim is to go back next year and try and bring that down to sub 4:45.
Overall, this was an amazing experience and I now can’t wait for Ironman Germany 70.3 in August.